HELENA — Montana’s Democratic legislative leaders have asked that the Legislature’s new special counsel investigate reports that Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen used his office to “harass and intimidate” medical staff at St. Peter’s Hospital over their treatment of a Covid-19 patient.
Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour of East Helena and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena made the request in a letter Thursday to the two top Republicans at the Legislature.
“Knudsen’s actions raise serious questions about his judgment and whether he is deserving of the trust invested in his office,” they said in a statement. “The public deserves to know the facts and Knudsen must be held to account.”
Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, said Friday he would need more information on the "purpose, scope and method of the requested inquiry" before considering the request, and that the special counsel would be in touch with Democratic staff to discuss the "next steps."
A spokeswoman for Knudsen also said Friday that his office "welcome(s) a conversation with any member of the Legislature," and that, so far, no Democrat has contacted his office.
Montana Lee Newspapers reported Tuesday that Knudsen spoke with hospital executives and sent a Highway Patrol officer to the hospital last week, to investigate a complaint from a patient who had said she was refused certain drugs, which she’d requested.
The hospital said physicians were “harassed and threatened” and that “three public officials” insisted that the hospital give treatments for Covid-19 “that are not authorized, clinically approved or within the guidelines established by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.”
Knudsen’s office confirmed that a Highway Patrol officer had been sent to talk to the patient’s family at the hospital, but disputed the hospital’s version of events, and said no intimidation occurred.
It said Knudsen and the Justice Department were “trying to get to the bottom” of allegations that the hospital was mistreating a patient and violating her rights.
Cohenour and Abbott said the newspaper story raises “serious questions” about whether Knudsen is “abusing the powers of his office to further his personal agenda.
Cohenour and Abbott said that Republican leaders should assign the Legislature’s newly created special counsel to investigate the incident at St. Peter’s Hospital, actions of Knudsen and the involvement of other public officials or employees.
The special counsel, the authority for which was inserted into a bill by Republicans late in the 2021 session, is an attorney hired by the House speaker and Senate president. Republican leaders appointed lawyer Abra Belke as the special counsel.
The law says the special counsel may “investigate and examine state governmental activities and may examine and inspect all records, books, and files of any department, agency, commission, board, or institution of the state of Montana.”
It also says the House speaker or Senate president can designate the attorney general, or an employee of the attorney general, as the special counsel.